Baby Talk: Keep Up the Conversation

8 ways to help your baby learn language—no flashcards required.

The latest findings make it clear that talking to your baby has important emotional and cognitive benefits.

The distinct, singsong way that parents talk to their babies is known by many different names: baby talk, parentese, motherese, infant-directed speech. Whatever you call it, the sound is pretty much the same: A warm, higher-pitched, exaggerated way of speaking that elongates vowels and comes out more like a roller coaster than a monotone.

Parents tend to use baby talk without even being conscious that they’re using it. When speaking to a baby, speech just comes out that way. It captures a baby’s attention, which in turn helps her understand emotional communication and learn language. Research shows that babies who hear baby talk learn words more quickly than babies who don’t.

Because of the importance of hearing plenty of spoken language, child development experts recommend talking to your baby as much as possible throughout the day. Here are some ways you can do this.

Be sure to answer your baby when she makes sounds. Repeat the sounds that you hear and add words to them. “Hellooo! Ba ba ba—do you want your bottle now?”

Describe what’s happening throughout the day. Narrate what you’re doing while you change your baby’s diaper, give her a bath, or drive to the store. (“Let’s see if you need a new diaper … yes, you do! Now I’m going to lift your legs up, up, up. Now let’s sliiiiide the old diaper off … now a quick wipe … is it cold?”) Feel silly talking about everyday basics? Try to imagine your baby is from another planet and you’re her guide, explaining how things work.

Use simple, descriptive language. All language is great for your baby to hear. She may pick up on the names and descriptions of everyday objects more easily, though, if you use basic words and short sentences (“Does that taste good?” “Are you warm?”). Baby talk tends to naturally come out this way.

Label things with consistency. Help your child identify her world: “Here is the cat.” Try to use the same words for the same things: Call the cat “the cat” every time, for example, rather than switching around to “kitty,” “kitty-cat,” “Whiskers,” and so on.

Use your voice, as well as body language, to soothe your baby when she’s tired or upset. Say comforting things while you cuddle or rock her.

Read picture books and board books together. Point to objects and colors on the page and name them.

Sing to your baby. Words you sing count too! You might be surprised how closely nursery rhymes and songs follow the cadences of baby talk.

Leave space for back-and-forth “conversations.” Long before your baby can speak, she begins to understand the rules of conversational turn-taking: You talk, I talk, you talk. So don’t jabber nonstop so she can’t get a word in edgewise. Say something, then pause and look at her. Give her a chance to respond. It may sound like “ba ba ba ba ba ba ba,” and that’s great. You might be surprised how long you can keep your “dialogue” going.